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A roadmap to sustainable farming in delta

By G. Venkataramani



Farm ponds like this one at Thanjavur will help to recharge aquifers and raise a good crop of fish. — Photo: R. Shivaji Rao

THANJAVUR, AUG. 20. Three successive years of drought and crop failures have compelled Cauvery delta farmers to seriously look to alternative crops. ``Our farmers have learnt enough about the judicious use of water and are willing to adopt any alternative crop which uses less water and brings in sure returns,'' says V. Palaniappan, a senior agricultural technocrat, who has been coordinating with delta farmers for well over four decades.

The farm pond concept should be revived and farmers encouraged to allocate at least 10 per cent of the holding for creating farm ponds to store rainwater. The Agricultural Engineering department should take up a pro-active role, and the Fisheries and other service departments should provide support to implement the programme. Farm ponds would help to harvest rainwater, recharge aquifers and raise a good crop of fish during the good years. The ponds could help to provide life-saving irrigation to crops at times of crisis, said Mr. Palaniappan.

Eco-friendly

Any alternative cropping or integrated farming system approach recommended for the Cauvery delta (erstwhile Thanjavur district) should offer a long-term solution that would take into consideration the fragile ecology, employment and enterprises development in the region, according to an agricultural expert. The new strategy could be implemented after a thorough study of soil fertility, water and eco-system maps.

``Many of the crops suggested are not new. They are in vogue long before the intensive agricultural development programmes have been introduced. They are proven and the farmers will just have to revert to them. Many agriculturists are willing to revert to single rice crop sandwiched by two short-term leguminous crops. It will not only rebuild the soil fertility and help in efficient weed and water management, but also regularise income generation,'' he says.

In the tail-end areas, which are subjected to frequent flooding and protracted droughts, perennial income and labour-generating crops such as `korai', bamboo, `vettiver' grass can be grown. Jobs can be created through innovative designs and forms of mat woven with korai grass. The crop can stand drought, floods, salinity and other forms of soil stress.

The hardy bamboo is regarded one of the promising crops of the future by international experts. This crop can tolerate protracted drought and prolonged submersion. It is an excellent windbreaker as well.

Vettiver cultivation is another lucrative venture in low-lying and low-productive regions. It will help in arresting soil erosion and providing valuable roots and oil of high aromatic value. Scientists in the United States have found that vettiver oil can be effectively used to control termite. Vettiver roots are used in purification of drinking water and in the making of ``coolant'' mats for summer, according to him.

The farmers can take to horticultural crops. Drought-tolerant fruit crops such as amla, mango and guava can be grown.

Integrating the crops with dairying and orchard crops is another paying proposition. Straw and tree fodder available in the region can support healthy and productive cattle development.

Farmers can also grow medicinal and aromatic plants and develop nurseries of horticultural crops in the interspaces of long-term crops. They can also take up bio-energy crops such as casuarina equisetifolia, casuarina junghiniana and jatropha, according to an agricultural expert. Such holistic approach will provide jobs and assured income to the farming community, especially women and youth, on a sustainable basis.

Sweet sorghum

The Agriculture department is advocating improved water and crop management practices such as the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) and the cultivation of sweet sorghum as an alternative crop, according to R. Navaneethakrishnan, Joint Director of Agriculture, Thanjavur.

``The sweet sorghum can be grown from January to September in areas where groundwater potential is good. This dual-purpose, energy-crop will help in efficient off-season utilisation of sugar mills, and co-generation, besides yielding ethanol. The grains will go to meet the food and feed demand of the farming families,'' he says.

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